Seminar in Life Writing—Four Modes (LSE/CSAP)

 While supposedly normative for centuries, the single-volume
printed biography or autobiography, usually accompanied by a claim to
aesthetic, intellectual, religious, or political significance, has always been
only one of many genres for life narratives. We will examine four modes of life
writing with a large contemporary profile, but also a history as a mode, and
extensive interconnections to other life writing genres as well.

              Each mode will
take up roughly a month in class time. The primary and secondary reading will
be extensive. The class will proceed through a series of explorations of single
texts or focused topics that provide an especially illuminating example of the
interplay between genres, methods of production, and forms of life representation. 


         A brief description
of the focus areas follows:


         Mode I. Auto- and
Bio-graphics—Lives in the Comix Mode
: For its primary texts, this portion
of the course will focus upon the twin graphic memoirs of Alison Bechdel; the
comics work of Art Spiegelman, and the extensive public archive now
accompanying Maus; and the graphic journalism of Joe Sacco. The critical
and theoretical work will be drawn from the edited collections, monographs, and
essays produced by Gillian Whitlock and Anna Poletti, Michael A. Cheney, and
especially Hillary Chute.


         Mode II. The
Lifewriting Biz / The Memoir Boom
: The primary texts here will include
Walter Isaacson’s biography of Steve Jobs; a cluster of texts dealing with the
life of Barack Obama, including his own memoir Dreams of my Father; and
Nelson Mandela’s Long Walk to Freedom. The critical texts will include
G. Thomas Couser’s Memoir, Julie Rak’s Boom: Manufacturing Memoir for
the Popular Market
, and various materials produced by organizations devoted
to the support of would-be memoirists or trade biographers.


         Mode III. Biopics
and Life Documentaries
: Here the focus will be on a cluster of films
emerging out of an extensive archive of print and other resources. Topics will
include the many versions of Malcolm X as a metonymy for representation of
American race history; versions of the Vietnam War as oscillations between the
personal and the global; and the various encrustations upon the Clutter
murders, all mediated through explorations of the personality of Truman Capote
as novelist, non-fictional novelist, and protagonist. Critical materials here
will include work written and edited by Glenn Man and George Custen, and also
forthcoming materials from Biography.


         Mode IV.
Indigenous Lives and Testimonio—Dueling Forms of Representation: The
main concern here will be appropriation, deployment, and blending of dominant
life writing genres within the project of representing emergent or suppressed
life experiences. The key critical material here will be drawn from Linda
Tuhiwai Smith’s work on indigenous self-representation and re-appropriation of
various modes of research that have claimed authority over narrating such
lives—most notably, the ethnography and the oral history. Primary texts will
include a cluster of works about Joseph Nāwahī (Kahikina Kelekona [J. G. M.
Sheldon] in translation, Noenoe Silva, Jonathan K. K. Osorio, and Biography Hawai‘i: Joseph Nāwahī[Chong-Stannard,
Howes, and Kneubuhl]); Jackie Huggins (Auntie Rita), as an example of
collaborative oral history; and also contemporary popular forms of indigenous
and subaltern representation, including Chester Brown’s Louis Riel: A Comic
Book Biography.


         One assignment will
involve a critical and theoretical mapping of related creative, critical, and
theoretical texts emerging from the selection of a single lifewriting work in
one of the modes. Adaptations, reviews, commentaries, critical or creative responses,
parodies—in short the creation of an archive of work in different genres in a
variety of media that will situate the selected text. A number of class
presentations, in the form of ten-minute information and position papers in
relation to one of the assigned texts, will take place over the semester.         A final critical paper, approximately
6,000 words long, with an annotated bibliography, will developed through
consultation with the instructor. For doctoral students, we will also work on
abstracting, and preparing the paper for submission to a conference, edited
collection, or appropriate journal. Weekly postings before the class session
will help focus and direct class discussion.